The “Toorak diet”, country-style

Toni Matthews and her friend Jane at their Melbourne show booth.
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Dissatisfied with the range of gluten-free foods on offer, Toni Matthews decided to take matters into her own hands, writes Justin Currie-Smith.

When Toni Matthews was told she had coeliac disease 14 years ago, she knew she needed to make some radical changes to her diet. Forced to take up the “Toorak diet”, as she called it, Toni quickly found that the foods available to her at the time just weren’t up to her standards.

Born in Hamilton, New Zealand, and now living in Yarroweyah in northern Victoria, Toni decided to take matters into her own hands, and it wasn’t long before she was preparing her own gluten-free biscuits and cakes at home. “Nothing on the market back then was any good, everything was really bland and tasteless, so I decided to do something about it.”

One in 70 people are estimated to have coeliac disease – a hypersensitivity to gluten in the lower intestine which causes difficulty digesting foods – though the majority of these cases are left undiagnosed.

But what started as a stall at the local market quickly overran Toni’s pantry, so she decided to turn her love of cooking into something which could benefit other coeliac sufferers as well and founded Windsor Park Country Flavour.

Initially selling at markets in Victoria’s South Gippsland region, Toni’s foods soon found praise among the local community, winning awards from the Wonthaggi, Deniliquin, and Cobram Agricultural Shows.

But far from the country, the bustling aisles and marquees of the Royal Melbourne Show’s many food pavilions contain no shortage of baking experts. If you ask any of them they’ll probably tell you that one or two flavours of yo-yo are all you need. But Toni didn’t just stop at one or two – or five, for that matter – but 10, and it’s not just Yo-yos.

In her compact stall inside the Fresh Food Pavilion at the Royal Melbourne Show, she has just a small selection foods on display, but her entire menu includes dairy-free choc-chip cookies, florentines, cooking herbs and spices, chutney, sauces, cakes, and, of course, Yo-yo’s.

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Toni’s gluten free chocolate chip cookies on display.

Although this is Toni’s first time exhibiting at the show, she’s no stranger to the prestigious food competitions. “I entered my Worcestershire Sauce into competition at the show in 2005 and it was very highly commended.”

But while the sauce may have been the product of her own coeliac disease, Toni wants to make sure she can help people with other food allergies as well. “Everything I make is wheat, gluten, dairy and egg free, so I’m trying to target anybody with a food allergy or anybody that just likes nice and healthy food.”

While the Worcestershire Sauce won praise in 2005, subsequent years saw this focus on wider food allergies work against it, with Toni being told it was “too light”.

“I make mine using white vinegar rather than brown vinegar, because [brown] has food colouring 150 in it and a lot of people have allergies to that.”

While the popularity of the gluten-free diet has increased since 2002, so has the controversy.Toni says that although the diet has gained legitimacy over the years, it is still viewed as a fad or weight-loss diet. “People don’t realise that the bases of [gluten-free] products are corn and rice, which is high in carbohydrates, which is naturally high in sugar.”

Although the market was relatively empty when Toni first started, four or five years later it had changed dramatically, prompting her to put her business aside for a time. “The market was flooded and a lot of the gluten free stuff on the market wasn’t great, it was bland and they fill it with unnatural products like fillers and preservatives and it’s not good for you.”

Almost 10 years later, however, she felt the time was right to start again. Her dedication to making healthy foods appears to be winning fans.

“It’s so difficult to find good tasting gluten-free stuff,” says coeliac-sufferer Elisha Page. “Most of it just tastes like cardboard.” Diagnosed with coeliac five-years ago, Elisha first discovered Toni’s biscuits through advice from a health foods store, but had the chance to meet her earlier this year at a local market. “There are a huge number of products available for people with food allergies, but half of them probably just come out of a factory somewhere. Seeing someone who is very passionate about what she does and making sure her products are safe for people with food allergies, because she has allergies herself, is great.”

So why are there so many flavours of yo-yos? “Why not give people some variety, why do you need to go to the supermarket and buy something which has all the unnatural additives and preservatives.”

It’s unlikely that these flavours would last long in a cupboard anyway. “They’re too moreish,” Toni laughs.